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Snailam's Watch (a short story, tweaked) by Mark J Howard

© Mark J Howard

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Snailam's Watch
.
a short story
.
by Mark J Howard
.
Summer's face was smiling on the English countryside as I stepped off the train at Witham Friary on a hot September afternoon in 1918. An old man in a threadbare tweed suit held my kit bag for me, then nodded, smiled and ducked back inside the train when I took it from him. Shouldering the heavy bag, I mumbled my thanks after him before walking away from the carriage and down the platform. I tried not to walk quickly but wanted to run as fast as Mercury to leave the overtly helpful passengers behind.
.
The matron made sure my uniform was clean and pressed but now I regretted wearing it instead of my civvies. The tunic ribbons looked too impressive for my taste but the empty sleeve, neatly pinned up at the shoulder, most attracted the furtive attention of my fellow travellers. People, strangers, helped me all day whether I needed it or not and their reverential attention irritated me so much it felt good to escape the train.
.
Witham Friary is a small village in the Somerset countryside and nobody else alighted or boarded there. The Station Master, a short, round man in his mid fifties with a walrus moustache and a shiny bald head, waved his flag and blew his whistle until the train chuffed into motion.
.
'Excuse me,' I said, intercepting him as he walked towards his office. He folded his flag before looking at me and an expression I was becoming all too familiar with sprang to his face; half pity and half pride.
.
'Yes sir, ahm, corporal, is it?' he said, studying the markings on my uniform and holding the folded flag under his arm like a swagger stick.
.
I nodded, perhaps a little too curtly, and asked him if he could direct me to Snailam's Farm. His face shone with recognition and he gave me simple directions. 'It's about five miles,' he said with a concerned look. 'I can get you a ride, if you like.'
.
'Thank you, but no. It's a nice day and I fancy a walk,' I said. After being cooped up for months, first confined to a bed and then to hospital grounds, I wanted to walk like a normal man again. I wanted to walk until either I fell off the world or I couldn't walk any more. The sentiment lasted about a mile before I started cursing the blazing sun and the fire-fight in my shoulder.
.
I was walking a deserted lane guarded by high hedgerows and sporadic trees behind which crouched fields whose various crops barely stirred in the warm breeze. It was disconcerting to find myself so weak and I dropped my kit-bag, and then myself, to the grass verge to rest in the shade of a scruffy oak. Birdsong filled the air with a joyous barrage and insects flitted and whirled in tiny dogfights. I massaged my shoulder, trying not to think about my lost limb. Trying not to think about any of it.
.
While I was failing in this regard, an old grey Shire horse, pulling an even older cart driven by an ancient farmer in an archaic suit patched at the elbows and knees with frayed sack-cloth, drew to a halt where I sat. The leather-faced farmer, sucking on a clay pipe which had gone out, looked down from his high seat with impassive eyes. After a moment's contemplation, he spoke.
.
'Lift?' he asked in a tone of voice suggesting he didn't care either way.
.
'I'm looking for Snailam's Farm,' I said.
.
He took the clay pipe from his mouth and used it as a pointer to indicate the road ahead. 'S'down yonder,' he said, 'I goin' right past.'
.
'In that case yes,' I said, 'I'd be most grateful.'
.
He reached down and took my heavy kit-bag from me as if it weighed nothing and placed it to the rear of the seat, then he took my hand and hauled me up with the same ease. 'My brother lost a flipper to the Boers,' he said, as if therefore understanding everything about me. 'Says he can still feel it,' he went on, urging the old horse into a reluctant and very slow walk. 'Load of cobblers, I always thought. You still feel yern?' He pointed his stubbled chin at my empty sleeve.
.
'Sometimes,' I said.
.
He grunted as if unwilling to accept my answer. I felt I should resent his comments and question but it felt good for him to be open and matter-of-fact. I found it to be the most refreshing attitude I'd encountered of late.
.
The cart was empty but for two new shovels and half a dozen crude sacks of something or other but still the old shire horse walked as slowly as if she were pulling a ten ton iron sled up a mountain. The ancient farmer didn't mind this lingering progress and sat hunched forward, resting his patched elbows on his patched knees and holding the reins in a loose grip. After a short but companionable silence he asked me how I lost my arm.
.
'In't no morbid interest,' he said with a lazy pull on his unlit pipe, 'I just got to listen to my brother tellin' how his arm came off so many times as I fancies a change. If you's willin', like,' he added in the same take-it-or-leave-it tone.
.
I smiled, despite myself, surprised to find his interest neither offended nor angered me.
.
* * *
.
My unit had been transferred from the Somme to the Lys (I told him) to rest. We were promised a quieter time far from the front, guarding pretty nurses and surgical alcohol. Less than a day later, all Hell fell on top of us.
.
You've probably read about it. On the ninth of April this year the Germans launched their Spring Offensive. Opened up first thing in the morning with artillery, as bloody usual, and it was foggy so nobody knew what was going on. They came out of the fog like ghosts with guns, and they fought with us like dogs in a pit.
.
My detail was guarding a fuel dump, not a good job with incendiary shells bursting all over, but the Germans wanted the fuel too and so hurled men at us instead of bombs. There were so many of them and they attacked like devils, vomiting fire and spitting tracers.
.
I'm ashamed to say we, I, didn't stand against them for long. Men who survived a year of the Somme with me were destroyed in clouds of pink mist as the Germans unleashed their machine guns. Our Sergeant, a little red-headed dynamo called Sean Feury, tossed a box of grenades into the fuel dump and led us in a fighting retreat under cover of the resulting supernova.
.
We tried hard to find our lines but were weary and confused and the German soldiers kept on pushing us back and back and back until I thought we'd end up knee deep in the Channel. If we got that far.
.
Me and two dozen other men got lost in the battle and spent the rest of the day trying to find our own lines in the fog and the smoke and the churned mud. Wherever we turned Germans showered us with metal and fire and by nightfall there were only seven of us left. Sergeant Feury died with the bayonet of a German he'd just shot dead slicing up through his belly and behind his ribs. His last words were 'Oh, for fuck's sake.'
.
We couldn't see our lines and guessed which route to take. The way wasn't easy and there were Germans between us and our lines. Germans between us and everything. We had no way of countering or even counting them.
.
With the sergeant dead I was the ranking NCO and it fell to me to lead the men as best as I could. At a fractured bridge spanning a wide drainage ditch in a splintered copse, I drew German fire while the lads slipped under the bridge in the dark. The Germans guarding the bridge were young and bored. The fighting was quite distant and they obviously felt safe.
.
I'm no great military tactician. My plan was simple and stupid. I would charge the unprepared sentries with our last machine gun. The Germans would run away and I would chase them for a bit before breaking off and rejoining the lads on the other side of the ditch, which they would ford in the confusion of my heroism.
.
It almost went to plan. I erupted from the undergrowth and charged, screaming, at the Germans. I'd never done anything like that before, not on my own, and I still don't know how I worked up the nerve. The Germans looked at me and time braked.
.
I was still running but the way you do in dreams, an hour between each footfall, still screaming. The Germans moved equally slowly, turning their dirty young faces towards me in shock. Four of them were playing cards, one was brewing up and one was urinating into the ditch. I remember him especially because, as he turned, he couldn't staunch his flow and sprayed piss all over his hands and trousers. The Germans were too startled to react and so was I, almost. I squeezed the trigger only to hear the dead man's click.
.
Nothing happened. The machine gun jammed.
.
The Germans, hearing the dreaded sound, released their tension in laughter. I laughed too, a laugh exploding from the pits of my Hell, and continued running until I was in the midst of them, swinging my gun like a pool cue in a Scouse bar brawl.
.
The surreality was broken when the barrel of my jammed machine gun spilt the teeth and brains of one of them all over their poker game. They couldn't fire their guns without hitting each other so we fought hand-to-hand. They were slow to react, unwilling to either relinquish or use their guns. I swung my gun with one hand and my bayonet with the other, whirling like spinning shrapnel blasted from a tank. The world turned a fuzzy red and the next thing I knew the Germans were dead and I had blood all over me.
.
One German remained, I think he was too terrified to help his mates and froze where he stood. Pissy. He looked at me. I looked at him, my chest heaving like the bellows of a forge. I wondered how long it would take him to realise he was holding a loaded weapon and I was not. Even as the thought clarified in my mind he blinked rapidly and pulled the trigger. A bullet fizzed wide of me and I ran. Pissy ran after me, his marksmanship poor, while the lads slipped under the bridge.
.
Four of them made it back alive, although I didn't find out until later on, in the hospital.
.
Getting shot didn't feel the way I expected. It was like being hit by a burning train. One minute I was running through the dark and the next I was lying in the mud with all the wind knocked out of me and flashbangs going off inside my eyes. Pissy came to finish me off but I'd fallen into a shell hole full of foul mud and shredded bodies and he couldn't see me in the dark, smoky fog. He fired a few rounds blind but they didn't come anywhere near me and then he went away.
.
I lay there for a long time, unable to move, I heard gunfire and explosions both near and far away. The only voices were muffled and speaking German.
.
It was midnight when I saw Captain Snailam.
.
Frightened, I couldn't see clearly in the dark and thought he must be a German, maybe Pissy back to finish the job. I tried to get a salvaged rifle on him with my good arm but I never could have fired it given the state I was in. He can't have known that but he didn't flinch.
.
'Stop playing silly buggers,' he said, and his voice was quiet but clear. He asked me if I could stand and helped me sit up. Not only my shoulder and arm but my whole body hurt in ways I never realised it could and the smallest movement made me want to scream. I was clear-headed enough to know any noise might attract the Germans and bit back the agony. The Captain gave me water and put what was left of my arm into a sling. Even in the dark and covered in bloody mud, I could see it was neither the right colour nor the right shape.
.
Any other officer would have lied at that point. 'It'll be all right,' they usually said, no matter how bad "it" was.
.
'You're probably going to lose that,' he said, 'but let's make sure it's all you lose, right? Come on, we'd best be getting back; Dougie'll be missing us.' He put his shoulder under my armpit and hauled me to my feet. I tried to fetch my rifle but he told me to leave it. We were too far behind enemy lines so even if I could fire it I'd do nothing but give our position away.
.
I've never felt so afraid. Unarmed, bleeding, hurting and lost in enemy territory. The best we could hope for was capture and imprisonment or sudden death. Snailam had no such qualms. He half dragged me and half carried me through the night, sometimes hiding from Germans and sometimes walking brazenly past them, camouflaged by fire-light, shadows and balls.
.
Although I tried like I've never tried before to keep going, I'd lost a lot of blood and felt the icy whisper of Death condensing around my heart like frost on a plum. I couldn't go on.
.
Snailam didn't complain. He dragged me into a hollow surrounded on three sides by thick bushes and shattered British vehicles and settled us down. There was still gunfire but far away; the Germans were concentrating on something we couldn't see about half a mile to the east. We were relatively safe but I was at my lowest ebb, as ready to curl up and die as I've ever been.
.
'I'm slowing you down,' I told him, 'leave me here and go on without me.'
.
It wasn't a selfless speech. I wanted him to leave me alone so I could put my head down and sleep. Put my head down and die in peace. But Snailam would have none of it.
.
He took out his pocket watch and showed it to me. Its smooth brass body, engraved with a fancy horse's head crest on the front and “Snailam's Farm, Witham Friary, Somerset“ on the back, glowed in the night, reflecting firelight from a nearby burning staff car.
.
'This,' he said 'is a magic watch.'
.
I wanted to laugh but my shoulder screamed and I was too weak. I shook my head.
.
'No, really,' he said. 'I've carried this with me since I joined the Army in '89, and look at me – not a scratch.' He spread his arms, inviting me to check for battle damage. 'It's this watch, it's been in my family for years. It's like one of those voodoo talismans you read about; an amulet keeping you from harm. Whoever carries it is so safe he might as well be escorted by a hundred angels.'
.
'Here, you keep hold of it for now.' He unbuttoned the breast pocket of my shirt and dropped the heavy watch inside, re-buttoning it afterwards and closing my tunic too. 'You can give it me back when we're safe, all right?'
.
I nodded. Somehow, that watch *did* give me strength and hope; and strength and hope are two things no soldier can do without. After a few minutes' rest, the Captain helped me up and we carried on. The ticking watch was like an extra heart, pumping not blood but hope through my veins.
.
I don't remember much about the rest of the night, just stumbling along in the dark supported by Captain Snailam. I was so tired everything became a fever- dream. As the dawn began to break I noticed one of our forward defensive positions; just a clump of trees surrounded by sandbags and wire with a scorched Union Flag drooping from a bent pole overhead.
.
A rough, Geordie voice challenged us. I had no breath to call back and was surprised Snailam remained silent also. Exhausted, I raised my arm, stumbled forward and fell to my knees.
.
'I think he's another one of oor gadgies,' the Geordie voice said, and soon I was lifted onto a stretcher and borne away. I never saw Captain Snailam again and assume he returned to his unit.
.
I was told I arrived at the forward post on my own. I was told I was a hero. I didn't believe it.
.
In the following weeks, wrestling with clammy Death in my hospital bed, I came to think Captain Snailam was a figment of my imagination, a battle-wraith; but when I regained enough strength to think and move I found his pocket watch on my bedside table...
.
* * *
.
'...so here I am,' I showed the ancient farmer the pocket watch Captain Snailam had given to me on that hellish night six months ago. 'Here to return his watch and to thank him for saving my life.'
.
The ancient farmer looked at the brass watch glowing in the sunshine and made an appreciative face. 'Tha's a good story,' he said, 'piles better'n me brother's anecdote. I swear as every time he tells it there's another fifty Boers chasin' him an' ten more generals singin' his praises after. Anyway, 'ere we is.'
.
He reined the old horse to a halt and she obliged with a weary nicker. The ancient farmer gestured with his pipe to a track leading off the lane. 'Straight down yonder,' he said. I thanked him and climbed from the cart. He passed my kit-bag down and I shouldered it and thanked him again. The old horse swung her head around to look at me but, finding nothing very interesting to see, turned her attention to grass growing along the verge.
.
'Tell Alice as old Jeth says 'ello,' the farmer said, 'and I'll prob'ly be lookin' fer a new 'orse come the spring.' He glared at the old mare but she ignored him, almost pointedly, as if hearing this threat for the thousandth time.
.
'I will,' I said. He urged the horse back into reluctant motion and drove on, neither waving farewell nor looking back. I watched the cart rumbling away for a moment before turning to the farm track.
.
It was a neat track with mown grass and sported whitewashed stones evenly spaced along its length. A five bar gate, in good repair and painted a brilliant white, stood wide open and gave the impression it was rarely closed. Over the path, high and out of the way, a curved wooden sign displayed the name of the farm and the same horse's head crest engraved into Captain Snailam's pocket watch. A hundred yards down the path, partially obscured by clipped trees and trimmed hedges, a large red brick farmhouse with a golden thatched roof lounged in the sunshine and I set out towards it.
.
The daisy-freckled meadows and paddocks surrounding the farmhouse were bordered with white wooden fences and populated by horses of all colours and sizes. Some trotted over to investigate me but most had no interest; content to graze or laze in the way horses do. I saw stable blocks behind the main farmhouse and in some paddocks stable hands leading young horses around on ropes or getting them used to saddles and traces. A faint smell of leather and straw sweetened the air and the distant clang of a blacksmith's hammer echoed from somewhere I couldn't fathom.
.
A small garden sunbathed in front of the farmhouse, from which depended hanging baskets overflowing with flowers, lending the scene a shade of Paradise. If there are farmhouses in Heaven, I thought, they look like this.
.
As I approached the farmhouse the front door opened and a young woman emerged carrying a saddle. She spotted me and smiled before placing the saddle on the garden fence and throwing me a wave. As black as my nightmares, her hair was tied back into a severe ponytail and her eyes were darker than bullet holes. Her skin too had been darkened by the sun and she walked towards me with a confident swagger. Her face was one of those no-nonsense affairs but pretty and she possessed the build of a woman accustomed to hard work. Her clothes were simple but new; jodhpurs, shiny brown riding boots and a man's shirt fitting loosely but without swamping her. I said hello, held out my hand and told her my name.
.
'Alice Snailam,' she took my hand with a firm grip. 'Here to see my father, I expect.'
.
'Yes,' I said and, after introducing myself further, 'I've brought his watch back.'
.
I showed her the watch and a swift frown crossed her face. 'I see. I think we'd better go inside.'
.
She turned and led the way into the farmhouse. Just as idyllic as the outside, the tidy interior smelled of dubbin', honeysuckle and warm gingerbread.
.
'You can leave your bag there.' She gestured to an empty space beside the front door, where I dropped it with a happy grunt. Alice led me through the farmhouse to a stuffy room with high French windows catching the afternoon sun. The room was spacious and mostly empty, save for a few low bookcases, a writing desk and a silent gramophone. A figure sat at the windows in a wicker bathchair.
.
'Daddy, there's somebody to see you. One of your boys, I think.'
.
The figure in the chair did not stir and a vague chasm opened in the pit of my stomach. Alice pulled the bathchair away from the windows and knelt to look into her father's face before beckoning me. 'He doesn't speak any more,' she said, and her voice held such desolation it made my eyes ache.
.
The man propped up by cushions in the bathchair was undoubtedly Captain Snailam, or what remained of him. The left side of his face was disfigured and only his right eye socket was occupied, holding a milky, blind egg. His left arm and his left leg were gone and those parts of him remaining were twisted, pale and atrophied. His white eye stared at nothing and gave no indication of awareness.
.
'Oh God,' I said, 'I'm sorry. I didn't know. The last time I saw him...' I could think of nothing more to say.
.
'Yes. Most remiss of the Army. They returned to me only a portion of my father. They left most of him behind in a place called Gheluvelt.' She moved to the writing desk and took an envelope from the top drawer. 'He wrote to me during a lull in the fighting there, the day before he was wounded.' From the envelope she withdrew a worn piece of paper and unfolded it with care, laying it flat on the desk. 'I think you might like to read it.'
.
I moved to the desk and read the short note:
.
*My Dearest Alice,
This is not war, this is base murder.
Never have I seen such carnage, such senseless abandon by man and God. I did not believe, even in the darkest corners of my mind, such horrors were possible.
I have vowed to God and the Devil in front of my lads that I will watch over them and see them safe home.
I fear it is a vow no mortal man can keep but if there is a way I will find it, I swear upon my soul.
Pray for us, my darling daughter, and know I will love you forever,
Your devoted father
November 10th 1914*
.

'But that's impossible,' I stammered, 'he was with me only six months ago. He saved my life...'
.
Alice nodded. 'You say he gave you a watch?'
.
'Yes.' I held it out for her to see. She glanced at it and drew my attention to one of the low bookcases. Lying on the top shelf were a dozen or so identical watches. A piece of shrapnel was embedded in one, another was deformed by a bullet, but the rest were as whole as mine.
.
'You aren't the first to come here,' Alice picked up the note and re-folded it. 'And I don't think you'll be the last.'
.
Numb, I suddenly wanted most urgently to be elsewhere. A rogue cloud passed in front of the sun, plunging the room into a sudden gloom my eyes were slow to accept.
.
'Which one of them heard his vow, do you think?' She held the folded note gently and ran her fingers over it as if stroking a pet.
.
I could not speak, it was too big for me, all I could do was gape.
.
'I often wonder.' She replaced the letter in its envelope and returned the envelope to its drawer.
.
With a mumbled apology, little more than gobbledegook, I dropped my watch with the others and almost sprinted from the farmhouse, snatching up my kit-bag and not waiting for Alice to show me out.
.
I have waded up to my hips in the remains of men. Watched crumbling cities burn. I have heard cows and machines and men scream like little girls. Smelled mustard in the winter and watched men without masks vomit their lungs onto the snow. I have felt the power of naked noise and the fragility of silence. Looked into Fear's eyes and touched the face of Horror. I have seen Death, I have been Death and I have escaped Death.
.
Yet inside that farmhouse, smelling of baking gingerbread and surrounded by flowers, sat the twisted remains of a thing I could neither face nor suffer to be near. What little courage I was born with, if any, was spent in Europe. None remained for Somerset, for God or the Devil, for magic watches or the ghosts of men not quite dead and not quite alive.
.
I marched back to the station double-time, which got me there faster than Jeth and his old grey Shire horse could ever mange, and before long was being patronised by rail travellers again. I smiled at and thanked each and every one of them.
.
* * *
.
Over the following months I tried to convince myself it had been a horrible joke perpetrated by Alice Snailam and her father, although I knew this could not be.
.
I returned home and, finding work as a journalist on the local newspaper, rejoiced with everyone else when the war ended. I would have gone on telling myself I'd been duped were it not for a package I received towards the middle of December.
.
I knew what it was from its weight and post mark but, although I expected a chill up my spine as I opened it, I felt calm when removing the smooth brass pocket watch from its cotton wool wrappings.
.
With the watch was a brief obituary clipped from the local Witham Friary newspaper reporting the death of Captain Christopher Charles Snailam at eleven a.m. on November the eleventh 1918; at the same time as the murderous guns of the War to End Wars fell silent and *all* the soldiers could come safe home.
.
* * *
.
The end.

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